U.S. special operations forces targeted the head of the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab in southern Somalia, using manned aircraft and drones to destroy an encampment and a vehicle.
The Pentagon was still assessing whether the strike on Sept. 1 killed the targeted leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Defense Department’s spokesman, said yesterday at a briefing at the Pentagon outside Washington.
Al-Shabaab, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department in 2008. Godane claimed responsibility for the attack last year on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, in which at least 67 people died. The U.S. has offered a $7 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
“If he was killed, this is a very significant blow to their network, to their organization and, we believe, to their ability to continue to conduct terrorist attacks,” Kirby said.
U.S. aircraft used a combination of Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions in the attack, Kirby said, without specifying which aircraft fired them. No U.S. troops were on the ground in Somalia, he said.
Godane was among a number of “high ranking” al-Shabaab officials who were meeting at Dhaytubako, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of the capital, Mogadishu, when the attack occurred, Lower Shabelle Governor Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said in a phone interview yesterday.
“We believe that a large number of senior al-Shabaab officials have been hurt in the attack, but I cannot specifically confirm if Godane was killed,” Mohamed Nur said. “He was among those meeting during the attack.”
Godane, also known as Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed, was named as emir of al-Shabaab in December 2007, according to the United Nations, which lists him among 13 organizations and individuals subject to sanctions.
In June 2013, he carried out a purge of dissident leaders to tighten his control over the group, assassinating Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al-Shabaab leader who had criticized Godane’s leadership, according to Austin, Texas-based Stratfor Global Intelligence.
The U.S. has carried out previous raids in Somalia, including one in January that targeted an unidentified al-Shabaab leader. The group has been fighting to establish an Islamic state in Somalia since 2006.
Godane’s death would deal a “substantial blow” to al-Shabaab, which became a more trans-nationalist organization under his leadership, Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Dubai, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“He was responsible for transitioning the militant group away from Somalia nationalists and more towards extremists that were looking to have wide-scale attacks in the region,” Salim said. “Without Godane, the Shabaab will be weakened in the short term. However, retaliatory attacks against Kenyan and African Union troops in Somalia as well as inside Kenya should be expected as a result of this latest development.”
Godane, who was born in Hargeisa in the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, also may have been responsible for the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa, in June 2011, according to Stratfor. The killing was organized after Godane was alerted to a plan by al-Qaeda to have Abdullah Mohammed or other foreign fighters to lead al-Shabaab, it said in a March note.
Al-Shabaab has suffered losses in Somalia since being forced to withdraw from Mogadishu in August 2011. Kenyan forces invaded the neighboring country two months later, after accusing the militants of attacking tourists and aid workers.
Kenyan forces now form part of an African Union-led force that has been deployed in Somalia since 2007 to try to help stabilize the country, which has been mired in conflict since the ouster of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Most of the 22,000 troops in the force, known as Amisom, come from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.
This month, soldiers captured six towns as part of a new offensive with the Somali army against al-Shabaab, according to Amisom’s website. The militants continue to carry out attacks on Mogadishu, including at least two assaults on the presidential palace in the city this year.
African leaders meeting in Nairobi yesterday said more concerted action is needed to defeat the threat posed by al-Shabaab and other insurgent groups in Africa. Governments on the continent have failed to take action that is “commensurate” with the threat posed by militant groups, African Union Peace and Security Council Chairman Idriss Deby said at the summit.
Attacks by militants have left thousands of people dead across the continent. Boko Haram Islamist militants in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, killed more than 2,000 people in the first half of this year in their campaign to impose Islamic rule, according to Human Rights Watch.
On the other side of the continent, at least 179 people have died in “terrorist incidents” in Kenya, according to Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultancy, while in Libya, Islamists are battling for control of the capital, Tripoli.
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